Maureen de Jager

Research Group: Contemporary Art Research Centre
Award studied: PhD

Project title

War stories: refocusing traces of the South African war


My practice-based Fine Art PhD is located at the intersection of South African historiography, trauma studies and archival theory. It considers the ways that traumatic experiences (tied to events such as war) are processed, packaged, and translated into stories that we tell and retell ourselves and each other. Over time, certain stories acquire a semblance of truth, presenting themselves as largely irrefutable, until a critical 'refocusing' opens them up to new interpretative possibilities. Essentially, my research objective is to engage in such a critical refocusing.

My particular context is the South African War (or 'Anglo-Boer War') of 1899 – 1902, which saw troops from across the British Empire enlisted to fight Boer commandos on South African soil. At the height of the war, in response to Boer guerrilla tactics, the British embarked on a notorious 'scorched earth' policy. Approximately 30,000 farms and homesteads were razed to prevent supplies from reaching Boer fighters, and the refugees were sent to concentration camps around South Africa. Conditions in the camps were such that over 41,000 people died here in under two years.

My interest in the war is inherently ambivalent, in part because I regard myself as an 'Anglicised Afrikaner'. Embracing this ambivalence as a critical, destabilising strategy, I aim to challenge the fixity of myth-making that circumscribes this history (and, arguably, all histories). By extension, my creative engagement with various archival sources 'makes visible' the vestiges of traumatic history in an open-ended dialogic manner, preserving the ambiguity and heterogeneity of both trauma and history. My practice-based research thus enables me to work with and through the 'inherent unspeakability of trauma' (Joan Gibbons), shedding light not only on an unmasterable past but also on the limitations of bearing witness.



Nottingham (United Kingdom), 2016
‘Learning to see: engagements with traumatic history through creative practice’. Presented at SENSE / EXPERIMENT / SURPRISE / UNDERSTANDING: PhD Research in Practice (a symposium for PhD students in the creative arts), 21-22 January.

Rhodes University (South Africa), 2011
‘Remains to be said… The ‘um’ in art and other disfluencies’. Presented at Space, Ritual, Absence: The liminal in South African art, 9-11 March.

Rhodes University (South Africa), 2011
‘Sounds dirty: earth / water / wind in Lindi Arbi’s Last One Standing’. Presented at Synthetic Dirt Symposium, 16-17 April.

Rhodes University (South Africa), 2010
‘Aberrant light and colour (after the rainbow)’. Presented at Colour Symposium, 27-28 March.

University of Stellenbosch (South Africa), 2008
‘Sans story: the landscape (post-)narrative in Brent Meistre’s Sans: A Stranger who came with a book in the crook of his arm’. Presented at 24th Annual Conference of the South African Visual Arts Historians, 4-6 September.

Funding received

Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, Rhodes University